Super Sad True Love Story is a pure light, inoffensive comedy, with the slight twist that it’s set a few years in the future. It’s about a middle-aged American who meets and sleeps with and falls in love with a young woman whom he meets at a party. The girl herself finds him “old” and “gross”, but I get the feeling will discover more positive qualities in him during the course of the narrative, who knows? Certainly not I, since I’ll be stopping as usual about page 45. If I consider what I’ve read up to this point, I’d have to say not much has really happened, the plot hasn’t truly developed anywhere – although I feel already I know too well exactly how it is going to develop. There’s a lot of wasted verbiage in all this, not merely because that’s Shteyngart’s style for the most part (which is not necessarily something to criticise), but because – I don’t know, he has to put in all these overlong and seemingly irrelevant comic scenes.
There’s actually (so far, at least) two narrative voices:
- The middle-aged man: a kind of excitable, florid Jewish-American voice you’ve probably read somewhere before
- The young woman: a kind of developed text-speak type voice
Shteyngart falls into the basic problem of this kind of split-voice, split-narrative, which is that one narrative is more interesting than the other: – I found myself wanting to skip over the young woman’s sections.
Comedy/Satire? – A light comedy, as I say, a comment on social mores, a culture clash between one generation and another. There are even some funny bits, mostly to do with miscommunications – words misheard and mistaken for other words, malapropisms – which, unless you’re Tom McCarthy, are inherently amusing, a foolproof comic effect. The satire aspects though: America is becoming an increasingly totalitarian society (a bit like Stalinist Russia; Shteyngart having Russian roots); they have invaded Venezuela (though it’s uncertain why); the Chinese yuan has become the dominant currency; all of life have become circumscribed by the use of social media. It all just seems an idle exaggeration of current trends, vaguely satirical but without much bite to it.
I know it’s bad for my avant-garde credentials, but I do think what is lacking in a lot of this books is any great concern or empathy for the characters. Yesterday I found myself reading it alongside Grazia Deledda’s Elias Portolu, another story about a man loving a woman. Yet I feel so disengaged and uninterested in Shteyngart’s couple – I couldn’t care less how it turns out; whereas with Elias Portolu, I’m utterly absorbed in their relationship, I want to know how what happens, I’m afraid of it even – anxious for the characters – because, the way it’s been set up, I suspect it’s not going to turn out well. Anglo-Saxon writers (just, for a moment, to generalise wildly) seem, to me, in their various ways (avant-garde / mainstream) to have lost any ability to appeal to the emotions of their readers, to their readers’ sincere feelings – perhaps, I think, because of a fear of ever being at all sincere themselves (“a light comedy” is, after all, in literary terms the very antithesis of sincerity) – either that they are entirely superficial; or they’re afraid, living within the cynical society they do, that any expression of their genuine emotions will only lead to ridicule and non-acceptance.
Irritating factors: yes, he uses nouns / adjectives as verbs, as apparently we all will in the near-future (though, to be honest, most “poetic” literary novelists seem already to inhabit this particular dystopia). But worse than this is his use of the word “analogue” (or, I should say, “analog”) in a pejorative sense (“universes that would have floored our sheep-herding, fig-eating, analog ancestors”). Any expression of the superiority of the “digital” to the “analogue” always gets my back up, being as it seems to be largely based on watches – and not really understanding that the “analogue” is, in truth, endlessly superior to that ersatz human fabrication, the “digital”.
So yes: light comedy, redeemed for a bit – but not for long – by its futurism.
Next up: A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey